Meet the Producers
Interview with Tom Spain by Naomi Boak
Naomi S. Boak is the executive producer of FAT: What No One Is Telling You. Ms. Boak is Senior Executive Producer in the National Production Division at Twin Cities Public Television, and was executive producer of the critically-acclaimed and Primetime Emmy Award-winning The Forgetting: A Portrait of Alzheimer's, which premiered on PBS in January 2004. She has also written and produced Emmy Award-winning primetime children's specials for CBS, and was executive producer for the daily comedy show Snap Judgment on Court TV.
Tom Spain is the director/producer of FAT: What No One Is Telling You. Along with his business partner and wife Linda Spain, Mr. Spain has created documentaries for twenty years. Among Tom's better known work is The Fire Next Door, with Bill Moyers, which won an Emmy, RFK Journalism Prize and 42 other awards. His film Anyplace But Here won three Emmys, and his series of "White Papers" with Tom Brokaw won a Peabody Award for NBC.
In 2006, Naomi Boak and Tom Spain discussed the challenges faced and knowledge gained while making FAT: What No One Is Telling You.
NAOMI: Tom, when we started talking about doing a documentary about obesity...what were your thoughts?
NAOMI: How so?
TOM: I was worried that it's a subject that requires so much sensitivity, since obesity is a condition that nobody can hide. Talking about it in the open in front of millions of people on television seemed to me the biggest challenge for anyone who is going through that. I thought about how difficult it would be to, first of all, have vulnerable people speaking their thoughts and what's in their hearts and troubles on television. And then also making sure that that trust is preserved and that's always one of the hardest things we have to deal with.
NAOMI: So what did you experience? Were your fears justified?
TOM: Well, some places, places I was very interested in interviewing people, would not even consider having their clients or patients participate in a television show. Others seemed really anxious to tell about their lives and stories and express their struggles they've had.
NAOMI: Were there personal reasons you didn't yet realize that made these people really want to tell their stories?
TOM: I'll give you an example. Rosie from Montevideo, Minnesota had not told her story to anybody until we sat down to dinner one night and told her we were interested in this. And she suddenly poured it all out, in a great, lovely statement and expression of her own adventure being overweight. When he asked her if she'd participate in our film, she loved the opportunity, even though she hadn't told anyone in her hometown she had had bariatric surgery. It was generally a secret. And she decided at that dinner, that it was time to tell everybody and she did, in a beautiful way. I guess there is something in people that makes them want to share their experiences with people, whether the experiences are good or bad.
NAOMI: Why do you think, for instance, that in Rosie's case, she wanted to share?
TOM: She wants other people to not experience the same pain, guilt and sense of failure that she did for forty years trying to deal with being a fat person. And she just finally understood that it is so difficult dealing with weight, and the reasons that figure into weight gain are really beyond the capacity of most people to manage. As a very motivated and responsible person, Rosie suffered life-long guilt and shame that she couldn't conquer this. And to find out that perhaps it is the most difficult thing to conquer is something that she wanted to share with people so they wouldn't feel so bad about it.
NAOMI: When you started to make the film, did you know this biological struggle with weight was one of the most difficult things for some people to conquer?
TOM: Not in the least. I knew some people had what we used to call "glandular issues" and figured it was genetic and there were people who were predisposed to be large. But I'm just like most people who go through the mall and see the irregularly overweight people at McDonalds and Dairy Queen and I thought "look at that." And so that was the mindset I brought into this.
NAOMI: Obviously your mindset has changed (laughs). You're not going to McDonalds and thinking "look at those people," are you?
TOM: No. I feel like I kind of understand why they are there and how their bodies are actually exerting powerful forces on them to go there. It may be beyond the capacity of most people to resist that kind of force.
NAOMI: What else was surprising to you during your journey through this?
TOM: The big surprise, and the big dilemma, is the complexity. One researcher told me early on: If you're going to deal with the subject, you have to honor the complexity...I've since learned this is a social phenomenon, an emotional phenomenon, a genetic phenomenon, it's a food supply phenomena. It's such a vast subject that's way beyond the reach of medicine or weight loss programs...it's just huge.
That's something that was a surprise and a dilemma because the job of a filmmaker is to take an issue and make it clear and simple. And our message is that this is not clear and this is not simple.
NAOMI: So how are you tackling that?
TOM: It's a matter of balance, between getting a clear view on something we know about, and then suggesting there are things we don't know about. Much of this story is about things we don't yet know.
And therein lay both the dilemma and the hope. There is science, and there are changes in the public policy and at school. Did you know that this week, Disney decided to not have Mickey Mouse endorse bad foods? So there is a shift in public awareness. But this is going to be a long and difficult road that may take a couple generations to correct.
NAOMI: Why do you think it's going to be such a long and difficult road?
TOM: Because we can't undo the triumph of modern society. We cannot undo the sedentary lifestyle that comes from working in jobs in offices instead of working on farms and fields and factories. We can't undo the remote and the TV. And we can't undo our preferences for food that is fatty and full of calories, at least not in any kind of hurried way.
I don't think you can legislate change. It has to come from a long-term public awareness where the people themselves change. And that just doesn't happen very fast.
NAOMI: So what are you saying to an adult who is overweight or obese and probably unhappy with his situation?
TOM: Try to become as healthy as you can. And do the things that are recommended to you from the nutritionist and exercise experts, but do not expect to lose a lot of weight. You have to learn to live with what weight was doled out to you and it looks like the body has its own idea of what that weight is supposed to be. The trick to me is to pursue a healthy lifestyle and be active.
NAOMI: Easier said then done...right?
TOM: Yeah, and I certainly wouldn't preach to anybody who has a weight problem (laughs)! All I would do is offer encouragement. But I do think being healthy is the first step.
NAOMI: What did you learn about children? What we can do for them?
TOM: I think children are really stuck in their own family environment, and that the family environment is generally not so good. If the parents aren't ready to give up on junk food and too many snacks and food that is used as bribes, and if they aren't going to encourage their children to get out and play and be free and run, the children are facing a really tough sentence. I think that's probably where a lot of energy should be applied—to get the parents to understand what's happening to their children.
NAOMI: What were some fun moments in making the film?
TOM: Something that was a lot of fun was working with a couple of research physicians who are really digging deep into the gut to find the mysteries of why the body sometimes cannot control weight loss. The adventures of these doctors who are trying to sort out the neurochemical signals of the brain to the gut—were very exciting. They are terrific people—funny and interesting and challenging.
The people who are our subjects are interesting and wonderful. The best part of this job is getting to be part of their lives for a little while. And it's fun to figure out how to help them tell their story so we can present it in a way that reflects their view. Mary Dimino, the comedian, is just a delicious person and is funny. And Rocky Tayeh, in Brooklyn, is thoughtful and has this big vibrant family who just loves to get into the mix and argue and talk about being fat. The characters are just fun and wonderful people.
And then there is the fun in the editing room, when something works. Which is not as frequent as I'd like it to be (laugh)! We try things and they don't work and we have to fix them. But when they do work, and the music and the words and the pictures all begin to sing and flow—it's just the best feeling in the world. That brings you right up out of the chair.
NAOMI: How do you begin that process? When you've done all the shooting and you get to the edit room, you shoot so much material and then you have to tell a story.
TOM: It's like putting paint on a palette. Or it's like filling a room full of books and trying to sort out that information that reflects what we've learned and at the same time it takes its own shape.
You can let a film happen, not make a film happen. The documentary material has to talk to you. You can't use it as clay; it's more like a living thing that has to be nurtured to live its own life as a film.
The trick is to go all through that material and see which things have real life, and shape them so that life is maintained. Then you arrange the pieces to see if they add up to anything intelligent. It becomes a back and forth process between your own dreams and what the material is saying. And whenever you have to push the material in a way that it doesn't want to go, you wind up with weeks of work that will go nowhere. You have to let that stuff speak and that's the challenge.
NAOMI: When you film these people, how do you get material that works in the end, when you get to the edit room?
TOM: The first thing is we ask them to show us how their life is and live it for us so we can try to take a picture of just a little bit of it, but enough to get a sense of who and what they are. I used to say it's like wildlife photography—you have to place yourself in someone else's life and wait.
You don't know if the room is going to be pink, or whether the person is going to be funny or sad, or when the environment is going to be noisy and difficult. You place yourself in the environment and try to film little moments of life. And you have some questions, of course, but you don't use them as questions. You just ask people to speak to these subjects, and tell how they deal with these things and feel about them. Hopefully it becomes a personal narrative of someone's life.
The objective, of course, is not to have someone sit in a chair and do an interview. That is always the cheapest cop-out in documentary filmmaking. The idea is to have someone speak to you while they are in the process of living their life—let's say cooking a meal or making a bed or working out in a gym— and have them just talk with you. It's different then sitting in a chair and locking them into a static interview.
So those are the techniques that we take. We always figure we are going to fail one day out of four in this adventure because it's so vague and so unfocused. But it does bring material that is more interesting.
NAOMI: Anything else you want to say about the process of making the documentary?
TOM: The process is not narrative-driven. It is character driven. As I've said, the characters had their own pace and way of doing things. We had to go with the way they are. It makes the editing time eight times longer then in a regular film, where there is a clear narration and interviews and such. So this takes a very long time and it doesn't resolve quickly. And that can be frustrating for everybody...We've been putting the film together since May, and we are still trying to figure out just how this is going to play best. It's very, very difficult...but not as difficult dealing with overweight.
NAOMI: Anything else you want to say about the subject matter?
TOM: Honor the complexity. I already said that. But the biggest impediment to getting this thing straightened out is prejudice and stigma. And it's the last accepted stigma—fat jokes are still permitted. Fat people still draw laughs and it's still a way of making fun of people. And it causes extraordinary pain and guilt and is a cruel thing. It's a prejudice that's in all of us, and until we deal with it, the folks suffering from being overweight will not be addressed properly.